By Keeli Parkey
In a press conference held on Thursday, April 21, Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley responded to a decision made by the town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BMA) to withhold a portion of its quarterly payment to the department for law enforcement services due to a lack of enforcement and other issues.
The Erwin Record previously reported that during the board’s regularly scheduled meeting on April 18, the panel unanimously voted to withhold $22,500 of the $90,000 budgeted to pay the department. Hensley and his department were also criticized during the meeting by officials of the town of Unicoi, including City Recorder Larry Rea.
“We get new officers every time we turn around and every time we get a new officer, they don’t know our ordinances,” Rea said during the meeting. “We’ve made books on the ordinances, but it’s been shown that the department is not willing to enforce our ordinances. I keep getting complaints from citizens and something has to be done. We’re paying $90,000 a year for service that is getting worse and worse as time goes on.”
On Thursday, Hensley said the allegations that his department is “not willing” to enforce Unicoi’s ordinance is “untrue.”
“I have never refused to do anything they have asked me to do,” he also said. “I have covered every event they have had out there on a short force. … I have to cover the whole county. I am short-staffed. Everybody knows that, but I think we do an excellent job with what we have to do with.”
Hensley went on to say he was “hurt” by the allegations against his department.
“It’s sad it has come to this,” he said. “It really is. It really hurt me because I have supported them 100 percent. Unfortunately, they are not satisfied with what I am doing.”
Hensley also said he was upset because he learned of the board’s decision and officials’ comments by reading The Erwin Record and The Johnson City Press.
“What really hurt me, out of professional courtesy, they could have called me to this meeting on Monday night and let me know some of the problems,” he added. “I would have been glad to give them my side of the story.
The sheriff also discussed “issues” regarding how town officials wanted his department to enforce ordinances.
“I have never refused to uphold any ordinance or law,” Hensley said. “At one point in time, (town officials) were contacting my deputies wanting more tickets written for speeding. We have speeding all over the county. We do address speeders, but I am not in the fee grabbing business. If someone deserves a ticket, we will write them a ticket. You don’t have to write a ticket for every stop you make. That is at the officer’s discretion. There are a lot of stops made.”
In a letter dated April 20 and addressed to the town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, Hensley notified town officials that he will not be requesting the $90,000 in funding, that his department will no longer man the substation in the town and that the department will be opting out of its contract with the town in 90 days.
In a separate letter on the same day, Hensley also requested the minutes, both video and audio recordings, of the BMA meeting on April 18.
According to Hensley, the contract between his department and the town of Unicoi placed an officer in the town during the day and another at night for $90,000 annually. Now, no officer will be designated specifically for the town.
However, Hensley said this will not adversely affect the safety of the town.
“I will continue to provide law enforcement just like I always have to the town of Unicoi and its citizens,” he added. “If any citizen needs me, they can call. The coverage is still there. But, I am not going to be dictated to about writing tickets. I am not on a quota. I will enforce the law equally and that’s where I stand on it.
“There are going to be patrols. Everything is covered. There will be no difference in what it has been.”
In a phone interview with The Erwin Record on Tuesday, April 26, town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch said he believes Hensley will keep his word regarding law enforcement.
“I think that we’ll get the usual commitment from him,” Lynch said.
Lynch also said the contract between the town and the sheriff’s department was for “extra protection” in the town for events and festivals. Lynch said the town’s “contingency plan” for covering events and festivals includes hiring off-duty officers to provide security at those events. This will allow the town to save the $90,000 it was paying to the department.
“We feel like we can handle the extra police protection by other means without such an expenditure,” Lynch said. “It is a better business move in spending the people’s money.”
Lynch also said he was aware of the staffing issues at the sheriff’s department.
“I sympathize with any problems (Hensley) may be having at the county level,” Lynch said. I know he has had problems. I was hoping that this would not escalate into what it has. It’s a basic business decision that the board felt like we had to go ahead and make.”